Friday, August 26, 2011

Steve Jobs May Have Something to Teach Us about Theology

My first computer was an Apple Macintosh. It is still in my attic.

The year was 1985, and I needed a computer for my graduate work, one that was simple and easy to learn. People around me told me to get a Mac. Before coming to the U.S., I took several classes about using a PC, and that was the age when you had to memorize what F7 or F10 stood for. When I heard that the Mac could do everything simply by clicking a little mouse, I was sold.

I liked my Mac so much that when I returned to Hong Kong, I brought it with me. In an age with the laptop and iPad, one possibly can’t imagine how much trouble that would take. I bought a blue canvas bag that was large enough to pack the whole computer. I had to turn the computer on at the security to show that it was really a computer and not something else. I was traveling with my seven-year-old daughter and I put the bag under the seat in front of her as we flew across the Pacific. She loved it because she could put her feet on top of it.

Not many people used the Mac at the time in Hong Kong. I finally had to give it up because the cost of repair was too high.

I didn’t know that iPod would start a cultural revolution when it debuted in 2001. Since then you could see the ubiquitous white earplugs in people’s ears. The little white gadget looks like “some sort of magical water-washed river stone that you just had to have.” Who dreamed of such a design?

I first saw the iPhone in 2007 in my friend Serene’s living room. It had a red cover and looked smooth and cute. I could still remember Serene’s excitement about how this mobile unit could do all the wonders for her.

I don’t know why you need an iPad when you have a Netbook already. I bought a Netbook before my trip to China because it was less than 3 lbs. But boy, the iPad weighs about half of it and runs much faster. I touched an iPad for the first time when the faculty and students of my school were traveling on a bus to Ian Douglas’s installation as a bishop. We passed the iPad around, giggling like kids sharing a new toy.

The Mac was my only rendezvous with Apple. I don’t have a smart phone and still have not been persuaded that I need a tablet, from Steve Jobs or from Moses. But in the past few days, I was fascinated by reactions from Apple employees, tech geeks, and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to Jobs’ resignation as Apple’s CEO. The Mac was my first love. You remember your first romance long afterward.

Steve Jobs, a Zen Buddhist who had gone to India to find a guru, may have a lesson or two for theologians. The genius behind Apple insists that function and form must go together. Every commentator speaks about the aesthetics and minimalism of Apple’s design. When Jobs dropped out from Reed College, he went back to audit a calligraphy course and it had forever changed his sensibility. He introduced the different typefaces in the Mac and firmly believes that technology must have a strong aesthetic component.

I wish theologians have a better aesthetic sense when we create our theological systems. Aquinas’ theology has a cathedral-like design, with transepts and side-chapels, flying arches and vaults. Paul Tillich pictured his systematic theology as a mountain, and drew a detailed sketch of the various sections of the work.

Jobs wants us to forget about the technology when we use Apple products. He makes them so intuitive that you can figure out by playing with them. When you see the clock icon on your iPhone, you know what it stands for.

Technology should not stand between you and life, he says. Theology should be like that too. Yet so much theology has been written to make you feel so stupid that you wonder what it is about. This ensures that there are always the theo-novices to depend on the theo-geeks.

But Jobs’ greatest legacy is in the Apple’s slogan—think different. When no one thought that there would be a market for personal computers, he and Wozniak created one from scratch in his garage. When computers were in black and beige colors, the iMac came out in astonishingly bondi blue, bright orange, and lime green.

Think different. God is still waiting to come out from the little boxes we have created. Who will write the first iTheology to start a game change?